Episode 51 – Amazing Antigua

Antigua, Guatemala is by far the most picturesque city we have seen so far. The lush vegetation, the gorgeous buildings, and the setting surrounded by active volcanoes are all spectacular.

The drive into Antigua from our port was also beautiful. We passed sugar cane plantations, both those burnt for harvest and those still growing green. We passed plantations where Guatemalan coffee is shade grown in rich volcanic soil, under silky oak, mango, avocado or other fruit trees. Apparently growing the coffee under fruit trees attracts so many bees that the coffee takes on a honey flavour. (Not sure how that works, but that’s what we were told.) The coffee fruit are ready to pick when they are bright red. Coffee, like many other crops in fertile Guatemala, may have 2 or even 3 yields in a single year.

We drove through towns where the thoroughfare was so narrow we could have touched the buildings from the bus windows, but we also drove through towns that had been “cancelled” (our guide’s word) by the June 3, 2018 volcano. The grey piles of cooled lava were evident, as was the path it had taken down the mountain into the towns. One of the bridges we drove over was brand new, the original having been “melted”, along with the tourists foolish enough to be standing on it taking pictures of the eruption. Guatemala is also the home of Volcan de Agua, a “water volcano” that in 1541 destroyed the city of Santiago de las Caballeros, which is now Antigua. The volcano’s crater is filled with water, so when it erupted water and mud rather than lava poured out.

Antigua was the Spanish capital of Central America until 1773. Its streets are still “paved” with 16th century cobblestones. Walking is a challenge, and yet the local people not only walk, but also bike and drive (albeit slowly) on the narrow streets. We were intrigued by the little 3-wheel taxis navigating between the larger cars.

There are more than 30 churches and convents in Antigua, and we certainly couldn’t see them all, but the very first church we walked passed was the Escuela de Cristo (School of Christ), decorated for Christmas. This church is unique for being built from stones and mortar, as opposed to plaster, and so was better able to survive the severe earthquakes of the 1700’s.

The city’s plaza is stunning, with a stone fountain in the centre, the Catedral San José (dating to 1680) on one side and the yellow Palacio de los Capitanes (the Viceroy’s residence for the 200 years until 1773) on another, and the multi-arched city hall on a third. Sadly, the cathedral was not open between masses, so we could not visit the interior or its famous catacombs…. but we could admire the scores of pigeons that love to roost on the square’s fountain!

The plaza square was also home to the most persistent vendors we have encountered yet on our trip. No amount of “no, gracias” deterred them, and the ladies selling textiles, especially, would simply keep following us and negotiating ever lower prices. For us, of course, it’s not about the price (it seems somehow wrong to haggle over someones handiwork that took hours to make when we can afford to be cruising) but about the fact that we do not need “stuff”. That said….. Guatemala is home to amazing jade in a variety of colours from white, greens and blues to lilac and – rarest of all – black. Jade here is a different mineral composition than Chinese or Canadian jade, and much harder: 7.5 on the Mohr scale (diamonds are 10). I succumbed and bought a pair of silver earrings set with black jade at the jade museum, where we were shown how to differentiate between real jade and look-alikes like serpentine. The jade museum also had displays of wonderful replica Mayan funerary masks (the originals are too valuable to be on display). Given that diamond blades are now used to cut and shape the jade, it is even more impressive that the Mayans were able to create such intricate pieces.

Oh…. I also bought a colourful shoulder bag (not in the square, but from the port market) made of patchwork pieces hand-loomed by Domenica, whose granddaughter was demonstrating the manual weaving process beside her kiosk (the pictures on the right). I justified that purchase by convincing myself that is is much more comfortable to carry than my current purse. Carrying it to show that I had already bought something deterred none of the other vendors, as you can see in the photo on the left.

Just outside the plaza, the streets are filled with gorgeous buildings in a rainbow of colours, most with protruding decorative ironwork around their windows that add one more hazard to walking around town. Look down so you don’t trip over loose cobbles or fall into one of the many cracks, watch for traffic when you have to step off the narrow sidewalk to pass oncoming pedestrians, but also watch your head and shoulders so you don’t walk into ironwork! It’s a challenge!

The Santa Catalina Arch at the top of Calle del Arco (Arch Street) perfectly frames a view of the Volcan de Agua. In the early 17th century, the arch was a passageway used by nuns to access the convent without having to be visible on public streets.

There were ruins of several old convents interspersed between streets of shops. One of them had some gorgeous statuary being restored behind its iron gates.

The gorgeous baroque style Iglesia de la Merced church and convent built in the 1750’s looks like it is made of lemon yellow Wedgewood pottery. I think it was my favourite building of all.

We returned to the ship hot and tired (88F/31C under full sun today), to be treated to a performance by a University of Virginia glee club, The Virginia Gentlemen, who will be on board and performing twice daily until we reach Los Angeles. The joke on board is that with the addition of these university students, the median age of passengers has now dropped to 50!

We’re at sea for the next 3 days until we reach Cabo San Lucas, Mexico on December 30th. Only 3 more ports on the itinerary. It’s going way too fast……

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